Graphic design, exhibiting, curating / 3 – A typology

2016-02-28 - Maddalena Dalla Mura

Exhibitions are means for communicating with audiences. While there is no single recipe, going back to basics can be useful for thinking about or making exhibitions.
 Giovanni Anceschi, Italian designer and theorist who has dealt a great deal with issues of graphic design and visual communication, can provide excellent guidance. In a 1991 text – “Le strutture narrative della scena ostensiva”, in 1961-1991 Mobili italiani: Le Varie Età dei linguaggi (Milano: Cosmit, pp. 111-116) – Anceschi outlines a “typology of exhibitions” from the perspective of communication, one that draws from rhetorical studies carried out in the 1960s.
The primary criterium upon which this catalogue of types is built is that of the “overall style of argumentation”, the “communicative intent” or the “expected or intended effect”. According to this criterium, two approaches or families can be identified: at one extreme lies the transmission or information intent which is the backbone of educational/ didactic exhibitions (which are aimed at advancing a cognitive process) and purely informative ones. At the other extreme, lie those exhibitions that are conceived in order to persuade or to convince, such as the “agitational” kind of display – which aims to promote a specific activity and to change people’s behaviour (including inducing one to purchase something) – and the “propaganda” exhibit, which requires the recipient to form a certain idea or make an evaluation about something (including the mass exhibits at international fairs as well as the elitist show found at art galleries). While the informative kind of exhibits are similar to publications in that they address the audience who wants to learn, the persuasive shows are comparable to stores and follow the logic of supply and demand.

Analysing the two “families” of exhibitions, Anceschi details their various identifying aspects, from the conceptual models behind them, to the role of the exhibition designer and the most practical and technical features of installation work.
Conceptually, he argues, the first group is based on the information flow model, that is, on the idea of a channel of emission and transmission. Here content is given centre stage and objects and texts on display are meant as mere metaphors for it. The visitor is regarded as a passive receiver who will diligently follow a predetermined and closed path resembling a “string”, such as a sequence of panels for linear reading. In this case the exhibition designer is more of a translator of a given communicative intention. The persuasive kind of exhibit is instead based on the model of the mise en scène where objects – be they artworks or goods – and perception are given centre stage. Here the visitor is also given prominence as an active element of the communication process. S/he will be offered a higher degree of freedom and the opportunity to follow her/his curiosity among the various sensorial stimuli that are provided within an open path. Instead of a string, the structure and morphology of this kind of exhibit resembles that of an encyclopaedia to be consulted, or of a “network” or hypertext, enabling visitors to jump from one impression to another. The exhibition designer in this case is more of an interpreter, a stage director (Anceschi speaks of registica in Italian = directing) who, erasing or concealing the pre-existing architecture, builds an environment, sets the scene, develops an ideal storyboard, while expertly positioning objects and props, and taking into consideration all the possible views, movements, and actions.

Clearly, the typology drawn by Anceschi is meant as a yardstick. As he warns, it is built from the perspective of the prevailing message or intention; in reality there exists no “pure” kind of exhibit, and every communicative event is in fact a mix of components: agitational, propagandistic, educational, informational, etc. It is important to add that, in the past decades, the landscape of exhibition-making has witnessed the emergence of new modalities, contexts, approaches, and concepts. Examples of these are the relational, discursive, performative and collaborative dimensions within the art system, or the role of digital technologies and the augmented visiting experience in scientific museums. However, even in this broader landscape of modalities, the typology illustrated above can still offer a safe haven to which to return and from which to depart when faced with the ocean of exhibitionary opportunities, from the plain display of existing works to the choreography that is as much about people as it is about objects, that is as much about the material as about the immaterial.

Curating, Exhibiting, Exhibitions, Graphic design